On Writing: Solitude & Femininity

Monday, 16 May 2011

glenn gould

Whenever I think about the topic of solitude and writing, I’m reminded of Glenn Gould, who was not a writer, but a pianist. I've always been fascinated with him, and I’ve linked this fascination with my own personal process of writing. Like him, I've developed a further fascination with the landscape of the icy North (I’m sure you're all sick of me saying how much I want to see the Northern Lights).

When I recently saw a documentary on Glenn Gould, I was immediately struck by a particular statement made by his friend, that his own interest in the cold, bleak landscape of the North was based on a love of solitude. Ultimately, Gould linked this landscape with the Northern part of our being; with a process of getting along with yourself when there’s nothing and no-one else to get along with. I love this. For me, writing is precisely about learning to get along with myself: that is, learning to feel comfortable and secure in who I am and what I do. This may explain why my interest in the Northern landscape is not simply based on its aesthetic beauty, but also on its philosophical implications.

And yet, whenever I have these thoughts, I always curb myself. I stop myself from allowing too much emotional or personal investment in such an idea of writing and its role in my life. I’ve discovered over the past few years of doing my PhD that the reason behind this is often based on my gender.

Women have always experienced difficulty exploring the same mode of personal development and solitude associated with the creative process. If you think about it, women were, and still are, intimately defined via other people, rather than thought of as individual beings. We are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that, it just needs to be expanded with other definitions of femininity. The kind of introspective sense of self I associate with Gould is still characteristically male. If I need any reminder of this, I only need to point to the repetitive list of questions I get on a regular basis: ‘when are you getting married?’, ‘when are you going to have children?’ – i.e., when are you going to become a ‘real’ woman? Funny how many of my male friends who are the same age as me are never asked these questions. It's also funny how writing is not thought of as part of my intrinsic personality, just something I happen to do.

If part of the point of why I write is linked to becoming more comfortable with myself, I suspect that this comfort will have to expand beyond my own solitary experience to become part of everyday culture. In her recent announcement of a new Literary Prize for women, Sophie Cunningham notes that part of the process of changing the way we think about writing and women’s relationship to it involves giving women's literary voices the same credibility and claim to 'seriousness' as men's literature, recognising that stories about women's lives, desires and experiences are not twee romance or 'chick lit', but just 'lit'. If we can do that, maybe those questions I'm asked on a regular basis would become irrelevant.

I'd be interested to hear your experiences or thoughts. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has had these thoughts.

Image credit: Photograph of Glenn Gould by Gordon Parks/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, 1956.


s a m said...

Hila - this post reads so true. I wanted to share this quote with you from french feminist Helene Cixous, from a reading I did when writing my thesis for my B.A :

"And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven't written ... because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it's reserved for the great - that is for "great men"; and it's "silly". Besides, you've written a little, but in secret. Write, let no one hold you back."

If Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
If Jane said...

oh i hope you have also seen
thirty two short films about glenn gould by françois girard (not a documentary but still worth seeing!)...
...interesting...(and this is my personal experience and view)
well as a filmmaker, i am constantly fighting against the label of woman director for two reasons: 1) my sex did not make the film, i did and 2) my male colleagues' gender is never mentioned.
this is not to say nor to suggest that i do not support others who prefer to call themselves women directors or women writers or women painters etc etc...i just prefer to fight against labels that put me in a box and separate me from my art.

etre-soi said...

Hila, no you are not the only one having these thoughts as you are not the only one wanting to go see the northern lights (we'll have to go together :))!!!
Yesterday I watched a documentary about the skirt, yes the power of the skirt, the symbol of the skirt then and nowadays, here in France and I think in other parts of the world. A piece of cloth that once was the only apparel a woman could wear. We have fought to wear pants and now we are fighting again to wear skirts because men have found again a way to control us, to keep us in a position that they have determined for us just like they have always done.
Maybe there will be women that will not like what I say but I’m proud of being a woman, I claim my belonging to this gender and don't want to be of an invisible gender to be considered like men are. That’s why for me there is a female literature and art or at least I seek for it and I often find it and this is how I see the world I live in, even if this means to be labeled woman in whatever I do, I don’t mind.
This wonderful post of yours reminds me that I'll have to make a post about my reading choices.

Danielle P. said...

This is such a fascinating post, Hila. So much to think about...

Emily Vanessa said...

I'm really dying to see the latest film about Glenn Gould, he's so interesting. I love this post and can relate to so many things; I've always defined myself as a loner, creative and independent but others still seem to define me in terms of my female role. Whenever I invite new students to ask me questions, the first ones are invariably if I'm married and have kids and then there's a kind of disappointed sigh whenever I say no. There's nothing wrong with having a family but I don't see why there can't be other ways to live as well and I'm pretty sure my male colleagues don't get the same questions.

Niina said...

thank you for writing about these things because it´s so rare to find interesting opinions on these matters. yes, i concur with solidarity and northern lights. Also I certaily feel what you are writing about: I have always been the oddball who don´t have to answer to those questions because of being the outspoken feminist/person that i still am, although not so much anymore. I think encountering of certain people is biased: some can pass as individuals and some are labeled straight off to be something (such as women). And to me that´s a sign of inequality. it´s not a big thing but something i try not to do to others.

lizzie said...

thanks so much for talking about this. i think about this all the time in terms of people making other people easier to understand. labels and boxes, they're all just so it's not so scary to think of people as extraordinary as they can be. the pianist sounds so interesting. :)

Sally said...

Thinking to myself once again how nice it is to find interesting pleasant reading in a world of image-driven blogs!

I for one am astounded that writing and the business thereof is still considered so male-dominated. I intern with a publishing company, and it seems like the majority of the editors, the majority of the authors we read, are women. Many university classes consist mostly of women nowadays. I suppose maybe all these numbers just give me false hope that women and their brains are surging ahead, when the key players are still male and that's what matters?

andrea despot said...

this post completely resonated with me as i'm starting to fall for the land of the icy north as well. which is odd and surprising because i tend to dream of either green, lush, wet places such as scotland or ireland, or warm, sunny, textured places such as tuscany. but then i see pictures like this:


and this:


and i can't help but feel that iceland is pulling me in. and what you've said about the philosophical implications makes sense: it's the same reason i dream of rainy, green ireland or the fields in italy: my desire to be alone with nature, to walk those green places, to wander those fields, to read or to write.

plus, i've dreamed of seeing the northern lights for as long as i can remember!

Olga said...

"A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions."
An Ideal Husband
As long as our society will live with this motto, even in regards to modern women, we will be in a state of stagnation, and in the position when they ask you about your gender when you're applying for work.

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

This comment "interest in the cold, bleak landscape of the North was based on a love of solitude" might also explain my desire to live a full cold and quiet winter on an island that is usually only inhabited during the warm summer months. I like visiting holiday spots off-season, when they are empty and quiet, and especially adore desolate beaches in the wintertime.

I am concerned when I read "writing and women’s relationship to it involves giving women's literary voices the same credibility and claim to 'seriousness' as men's literature, recognising that stories about women's lives, desires and experiences are not twee romance or 'chick lit', but just 'lit'" Yes, I find many women's literary voices quite credible and serious. I hope I am not in the minority.

Tana said...

wonderful post Hila!i'm on the point that women`s literature can be (and some deserve to be) considered as serious,thought-provoking and credible.

Bonnie Lea said...

Love this. Thank you for posting this. I am really happy to hear it.

aldrin said...

This is really good. I believe that as long as you can write something where you can hear your voice, and explain things kindly, carefully and clearly, then you’ve done something right.

Ashley said...

I don't know why women should have to struggle against all odds in the writing world; it's mind boggling. To add insult to injury, it's even been suggested that we embrace this osracising behavior for the sake of our art. That's so pathetic. Thank you for writing about this; it can never be expressed enough. On a lighter note, I adore Glenn Gould, and that photo is one of my all time favorites. I even posted it on my blog awhile back! Anyway, solidarity sister:)

Des said...

whenever i think about the writing process i think of Joan Didion. She said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

i never gave careful thought about how different the writing process is for men and women, but it makes sense after I read your post. That being said, I think writing is challenging for everyone because you have to be so vulnerable if you want your writing to be accessible. And I think that's just as difficult whether you are a man or a woman.

Rambling Tart said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I needed them today. I too am asked regularly when I will be married, have children, settle down, etc. It's only recently that I have been considered a writer, before it was a nice hobby that would occupy me until I could get married. I love being a writer. Like you it helps me get settled and peaceful in myself, and that always makes the world a much better place. I hope you get to see Northern Lights soon. I grew up in Canada and loved seeing them dance across the prairies at night. :-)

odessa said...

hila, i know how you feel. i also get the same questions i.e. marriage, kids, etc. but its only in the last 3-4 years that i considered myself a writer so i haven't really given much thought about writing and the gender divide. its definitely something to think about. thank you for this post.

p.s. i love the northern lights too.

hila said...

Sam: oh thanks, that's a wonderful quote.

if jane: I have to agree - you also don't hear "male writers" or "men's fiction" be said often do you, yet somehow it's fine to say "women's fiction" and "female writers". Why do men speak for general humanity, yet women only speak for women? It's all a bit skewed and pointless.

Sofia: I'm not sure that wanting equality means becoming 'invisible' as a woman, or not being proud to be one. It just means that maybe the categories that are placed on women's art and fiction only work to marginalise rather than empower them and their voices. Does that make sense?

danielle: yes, and talking about it is only the beginning ...

emily vanessa: I've had similar experiences, and it's frustrating. There is also a sense of presumption about these questions, that many of my male colleagues have not experienced. I don't know if I define myself as a loner, I just want different things out of life at the moment.

niina: yes, you're right - it can seem like no 'big thing', it's like a subtle form of sexism. Yet, it inevitably colours the way people approach you and see you.

lizzie: I think a lot of the time those labels and boxes become necessary to some people because they simply cannot fathom how somebody can make different life choices to them. I guess being open-minded means you realise that not everybody is a reflection of you, and that there's nothing wrong with that.

Sally: thank you! there are a lot of female writers out there, it's just that 'high' literature - literature that is considered 'real' art and that is taught in high schools and universities - is still primarily male, or male-dominated. This is part of the reason for the new literary prize for women being established.

andrea: I'm also drawn to the philosophical and implications of certain landscapes, which is why specific types of landscapes have always appealed to me, while other haven't - because I assign them different meanings I suppose.

olga: yep, I agree. There bias, and there will continue to be, as long as we ignore it and pretend like the modern women has 'arrived'.

denise: sometimes I feel you might just be in the minority! Maybe that's too bleak an outlook though. If you look at what are considered to the be the 'great' classic novels though, men dominate. There is also the much repeated tag line of 'chick lit' which I find so insulating and infantile.

tana: thank you lovely! and of course, I agree.

bonnie: my pleasure!

aldrin: agreed - if only the rest of the world thought like you.

ashley: solidarity sister :) I too find it mind-boggling and a tad insulting too.

des: oh of course, it's very difficult for anyone, regardless of their gender. I hope this doesn't come across as an 'attack' on men as that's not the point at all. I just feel that women's voices can get lost in the margins far more frequently than men's, and this is primarily due to gender stereotypes about what women's roles are in society and culture.

rambling tart and odessa: I've only recently started thinking of myself as a writer too and I think my reluctance to only highlights my inability to completely disengage myself from what other people think I should be doing with my life. I think there comes a point when you need to stop listening to other people's judgements and claim what feels the most natural and authentic to you.

Sally said...

Yes, that's true, "classic" literature at least is definitely still male-dominated, but the "literary" american novels of today that I'm seeing are at least 50/50 female (or maybe that's just the awesome press I work with :) Side rant, why is it that men also still fill the ranks of famouse "high art" visual artists and especially musicians (pisses me off so much when friends say they don't "like" female musicians, wtf).

hila said...

sally: yes I know, this problem isn't just in literature but the arts and music industry. There are all sorts of biases we take for granted, and I sort of feel like we need to 'expose' and disentangle them from everyday logic.

Jane Flanagan said...

I feel this so much, daily. I think I hold back from embracing solitude as well because even though I've rejected those conventional questions, it's still a paradigm I judge myself from. I struggle sometimes to understand what it is I really want and what I'm just shoulding for myself.

As an aside, it might make you smile to know that I live in the same building Glenn Gould did in Toronto. I loved seeing him on your blog.